Sure. So, my name is Michael Hicks, I'm 22 years old, and I'm from Southern Illinois. And I kind of started to lose interest in videogames a couple years ago, 2012. I was in college at the time, and I was surrounding myself with movies and music that was changing my perspective on things. I was really big into Paul Thomas Anderson movies like There Will be Blood and Magnolia, stuff like that.
Then I looked at the games I was playing at the time and something kind of dawned and I realized how far away games are in comparison to the films and music I was surrounding myself with, right? Like, while I was watching There Will be Blood and Magnolia, I was playing Skyrim, like, hacking down zombies for hours on end and doing pretty much mindless tasks to get some type of piece of armor.
Like, who cares? I wasn't taking anything back into real life with what I was doing in games. And that's why I saw a problem. That's why I kind of fell off the bandwagon, you could say. [Laughs.] It was around that time.
I really wanted to get into Skyrim and a few of the other big releases around then like Mass Effect 3. But, I kept feeling like every quest boiled down to the same basic interactions, and if there’s no other reason for me to repeat myself other than some fictional currency then why am I spending time on this? I remember my best friend saying stuff like, "I feel sorry for you, you can’t have fun with anything anymore." I didn’t consciously make that decision, but the more I kept questioning and seeing things like this, the more I stopped playing -- I gradually stopped playing games on a regular basis.
It's interesting because movies do come up quite a bit in these, and so I guess I'd be curious to hear: What is it you feel you take from movies into your life?
Well, multiple things. When I think of the movies I was watching at that time, there's kind of perspectives I had never considered of other people. Because movies kind of -- they can put you in the shoes of personalities or types of people that you don't maybe think about on a daily basis or maybe see, and it kind of makes you think, "Oh, okay, I see where that type of person's coming from. Why he would make that type of action or decision, because of how he's shown in the movie." Does that make sense? [Laughs.]
By way of contrast, what sort of perspectives do you feel, if any, you had gleaned from videogames?
[Pause.] Yeah, nothing really. [Laughs.] I don't know. I'm just going to be honest. I can't really think of anything, right? Because all the games I played growing up and I played around that time were about escapism, and there's nothing real about escapism. That's the complete opposite of what I'm talking about. I mean, I have played games like Papers, Please, which I'm sure at least you've played that.
That did give me a perspective, and that did change me. Like, I remember going to the airport, going to GDC last year, and I actually was thinking about that game. "Okay, don't get mad at these people, they're just doing their job, they're asking for the paperwork and so on."
So, yeah, I can think of a few games like that that I discovered later from the indie scene, but, like, looking at the big picture, hardly no games offer me that. What about you? Were there any that you could think of?
I think I've learned zombies are bad.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly.
Nazis are bad.
Power-ups are good.
And you don't want to die.
Exactly. Yeah. That pretty much sums up most videogames. That's the sad thing, though, is pretty much what you said is almost every videogame I've played, so, yeah.
Obviously there are exceptions and I'm kidding a bit, but by and large I feel like anytime in videogames you criticize them, people will point to three or four examples and be like, "What are you complaining about? We have these four things."
A good example would be, like, this morning on Twitter I was just passing along the message that a lot of devs in these interviews have talked about romance, and why isn't there more of it in videogames, especially being depicted in a realistic way?
And I just threw it out there and people almost instantly were like, "Well, but here's these four things, though." I feel like that happens a lot in games, and when we're talking about that lack of perspective being present, why isn't there a more vocal reaction of, "Well yeah! There should be more of whatever! How can we figure that out?"
I consider myself an indie game developer because I have no publisher support, but I'm just as disappointed in indies as I am with AAA people. But the examples I can point to are from independent people, sure. But I think -- if you look at the mobile space and what most indies are doing, they're operating almost like bigger studios. They come in, they analyze the market, and they try to cater to what people want and they don't really even have -- I don't feel any type of vision from most indie games at all. I feel like they're just trying to cater to everyone just like the AAA games.
But it's not all the time, there's always those exceptions like you said. But at large, yeah, I feel that way. Would you agree with that?
About what specifically?
That there are only a few indie games that really are giving that perspective. That most indie games are operating in a similar way?
What gives me more pause and trepidation is how unreceptive the space can be to criticism. Where, again, you'll be like, "Well, I'm really not seeing it there," and people will be like, "Well, but we have these four things. So please shut up and be more satisfied."
But it reminds me a bit of when I was just getting started as a writer a little bit older than you are now. I was in Chicago, and wrote a couple things critical of the improv scene there. I started in New York. But Chicago was a scene I came up through and I took classes in and was teaching there and felt I knew my stuff and was qualified enough to write critiques there the way I am in videogames now. But I wrote a thing that said, "Hey, the improv scene in Chicago, the audience was largely just other improvisers. So when you have creative people performing just for other creative people instead of to civilians, how does that skew what you're going to be doing for audiences?"
It's like if you say anything only 99 percent supportive they will latch onto your throat.
That's an interesting point because I feel like in games, that's very similar to what's going on now, in the indie scene at least, because when I talk to people outside of the gaming circle or whatever, they don't really know about Papers, Please. They might know of Journey, maybe. That's about it. I feel like all these games that we point to are just kind of, like you said, just in their own little creator circle here. We still have a long way to go, but at least some people are trying. There still needs to be a lot more effort, I think.
I think just being open to criticism and other viewpoints, even if it's people who have lost interest -- like you're someone who lost interest in videogames and then you wanted to make them? Like, why did you decide to make them if you lost interest in them?
Well, I guess I started making games before this happened. I was going to school, Full Sail University. It was geared towards getting you out into studios and so on, but I kind of had a crisis there in the middle of the whole thing where it's like, "I don't want to do that anymore. I want to try to fix some of the stuff I'm complaining about." [Laughs.]
This is what I want to do with my life, I want to try and address some of these things I don't like. Kinda like you said, I kinda expect myself to fail, but I'll learn from it at least and hopefully make some kind of positive contribution through the failures. To me, I like seeing these failed projects. Those are so much more interesting to me than picking up the new Dragon Age or whatever. I get something out of those as a creator. So, you know.
Well, tell me about your experience with Full Sail. For people reading this and don't know about it, it's a college program designed for aspiring game designers, people who want to work in the industry.
Yeah. Yeah, so pretty much all their teachers there are ex-studio veterans or people who are currently working in the industry. Like, I think one of my teachers wrote books on graphic shaders or whatever, and it's a pretty good program. They definitely gear you up towards working in a studio environment. They teach you all the -- there's this thing called scrum that they use to make sure that everyone's being productive and the work's on schedule. They introduce you to all those things, and it's a lot of good hands-on experience. Pretty much everyday you're coding. It's real hands-on and very fast-paced. I enjoyed it, I learned a lot, but that lifestyle of working in the studio -- that's just not what I want to do with my life. But if that's what you want to do with your life, which if you're listening to this podcast, it's probably not. [Laughs.] But if it is what you want to do with your life, Full Sail is a pretty good experience.
I ask because I'm of course curious, but I've also taught in a few programs like that. I've not taught at Full Sail, but I feel like that's the one most people know about. But I don't think I've ever spoken to anyone except people who run the program for an article I was doing years ago.
What was the picture of the industry that you felt they painted, your instructors?
Because you have a final project where you get together with five other people and you make -- they try to recreate the work experience pretty much, where you guys make a game and you make it similar to how they expect you to make games in a studio. I thought the whole process -- like, they wanted to start with a genre. Like, people would sit down and say, "Okay, you want to make a first-person shooter? Do you want to make a hack 'n' slash?"
And, like, that really struck me as wrong. You know what I mean? I tried to tell people this and they were like, "Oh, you know, whatever." But, to me, you should want to start with, like, "Why am I making this game? What's the message this game is going to have? What am I trying to express?" And then let all that other stuff come in afterwards. But that's not how -- like, the workflow is completely opposite of what I think it should be.
They pretty much said that if you don't want to do it this way, then -- I mean, they didn't flat-out say you have to do it this way, but when you're around other people like that, there's the group gaze, I guess you can say, of that's just the way you do it. I'm guessing that's how life in the studios is, too, so. [Laughs.]
Well, I don't know. I haven't worked at a bigger studio. The gist that I'm getting is that there is so much money tied up in these games that they're like oil tankers at this point. And it's so difficult to turn them around that they either aren't trying or they try to do the best with what they can and try that trying. I think certainly, objectively, many people would agree, even those who work at those companies, that they could be doing more.
But at the end of the day, it's a business.
Going back to what you said, what do you think drives most developers?
I mean, I think it's the same thing that drives most creative people to spend most of their time thinking and working on this stuff. The same as improv people in Chicago I remember, which is you want to be able to eke out a living on your terms making things you like because you were so inspired by the things you liked that you also wanted to make them. And if you're making something you like, why wouldn't you want to make money from it?
I mean, isn't that what sort of attracted you to it at first?
Yeah, at first. Yeah, it was just a bare, kind of basic, "I play videogames and I'd like to make money doing it." But then I guess it kinda changed because -- yeah, I mean, I want to make money off what I do and make a living, I mean, who doesn't, right? But you see all these problems -- and the main problem is people are focusing on money first and foremost. At least I think so.
So, I'm 32. You're 22. Do you remember a time when games didn't seem that way?
Maybe when I was really young, right? [Laughs.] But that's just because I was naive and, you know what I mean? You're young and it's kind of magical to play games and all that, but I don't know. See, it kinda goes back to this discussion where, like, I feel like the music and film scenes have developed a pretty strong, I hate to say, like, indie scene, right? But a scene of stuff that's really creative and they're more focused on the vision of their work, right? And I look at games and I don't quite see that. Does that make sense what I just said? I'm not sure if I articulated that right.
It does. Even just the word "indie" in games is problematic, but I think sometimes there is a tendency to be, like, the grass is a little browner when looking at other mediums, especially, like, if you've just grown up paying attention to just one or two of these scenes predominantly. And I think you can trick your mind into thinking, "Well, music or movies have this really figured out."
I mean, games have a really, really long history. Videogames shorter, but I'm talking about games, which go at least all the way back to ancient Egypt. Probably further.
Like, you don't necessarily see bands going out to their garage and farting around for a while on a couple of demos that they stream out to everyone who wants to hear it.
I feel like there's less of a crock pot mentality going on.
That kinda brings up a point I was hoping we'd bring up eventually, but I feel like a lot of things -- a big reason I think games are being held back is because people are so obsessed with the tech. Do you feel that way too? Even when I was going to school, "Oh, look, I hand-rolled this engine. Look how many polys it pushes." And all that. People are still in that mentality, you know what I mean?
To me, it's like, "Who cares?" I don't even care about that anymore. When a new game comes out and it has cutting-edge graphics, it's like -- I was amped up when Metal Gear Solid came out for PS2. It was like, "Oh man, this looks so real." You know what I mean? So I don't get excited about that stuff anymore. It doesn't offer me anything -- do you feel the same way? That people are a little too tech-focused in this industry?
I think some might, sure. But I also think we're maybe reaching the end of that as we get closer to fully mapping out the Uncanny Valley. Like, it's not really the thing to be grinding against anymore, we've seen it. Really, I think in the long run, what will bear out is less of the way it looks and more so the idea driving it -- that's the great equalizer to what's really going on right now. But I do sense among a lot of the people I have interviewed and know, of all ages, that there is less urgency to buy the current gen of systems. Like, it has caught up to PC more or less, and PC is copying console and console is copying PC, even though PCs are actually way more advanced. But it's all kind of blending together.
I totally agree with your point. To clarify, I only have a PS4 because I develop for PS4, because they do indie support. Because I feel the same way. I don't really feel an urgency to buy the new consoles really. I mean, back when I was a kid I remember there was always this big debate: "Oh, should I get the Xbox or the PlayStation or the Nintendo system? Which one has the better exclusive games?"
That's not even a thing anymore, really. I think.
No, in fact, I see people getting outraged over exclusives even being a thing.
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.]
How do games seem limited to you?
I think they feel limited to me -- kind of going back to what we talked about a second ago, and I agree it's changing, but I feel people are still kind of obsessed with the tech and the feature lists of what games can provide. You know, how many levels does this have and what's the length of this game. That all seems to be a pretty big thing.
If a game isn't 10 or 15 hours, people seem to get outraged about that. To me, I wouldn't mind a good two-hour experience that's quality from beginning to end with no grinding. There seems to be this status quo of game design that people -- I don't want to say everyone, but it feels that the majority of people kind of believe in. Games are being limited is by this idea that games have to be a certain way, I think.
There's just this way that people look at games and they think that's how they have to be.
This may tie into that a little bit, but what seems weird to you about the intersection of videogames and the Internet?
That does tie in actually, because if your game does try something different, there does seem to be a huge backlash. I experienced this personally back in 2012. I made a game called Sententia for Xbox Live. It was trying to do some different things. It was the first game I'd made coming from this mindset that I was telling you about. I was starting to become frustrated with games. I remember people on forums, like, getting huge groups of people together to come and downvote all my videos and leave me nasty comments. Like, they were masses of people that came together just because they didn't like that I was doing something different.
I'm not trying to say, "Oh, I'm an artist and these people don't understand." Because the game was flawed, and I learned a lot from it, but it's just how the Internet enables -- because it's so anonymous, people will say whatever they want. It's so toxic, I guess. That kinda ties in with the last point, when you try to do something different, and these people don't like that, they mass up and they come and -- you know, like, Gamergate, is pretty much what I'm saying. [Laughs.] So. Yeah.
Do you see that as well? Would you agree with that?
Okay, cool. [Laughs.]
But do you feel like something like Gamergate was inevitable? Before we started recording, I mentioned that for people who wrote about games -- it was a long time coming. It wasn’t a shock at all. Still, very depressing and awful. But not a surprise.
But, yeah, I think this stuff can be very toxic. If you look at games in the way that they connect us actively, rather than peripherally, it's shouting at each other and sometimes, either encouragingly or discouragingly -- you know, when it comes to people you don't really know, that tends to be the crux of the interaction. Sometimes you make some friends or this or that. But it's not really tempered against, "Hey, there are human beings."
That's an interesting point. When I released my Sententia game a couple years ago, like, what it did was it kind of took traditional platforming mechanics, but it tried to turn it into a metaphor. Kind of like Jason Rohrer's games like Passage and Gravitation and so on. He's my favorite designer.
People, they were reviewing it in a way that -- they didn't try to approach it, or, well, they didn't consider what I was trying to do, is what I'm trying to say. They reviewed it like it was a traditional platformer and they reviewed it based on how they wanted it to be in that traditional mold or whatever. I came out, I was on Twitter, and I said, "I respect everyone's opinions, but I don't feel like you guys are approaching my work correctly and considering what I was trying to do with it." There was this huge attack against me. People started tweeting back, "Oh, you're just stuck up and you're not going to learn anything if you don't listen to people." [Laughs.]
So I just kinda shut up and got off Twitter. That's a waste of my time to just fight with people. I'd rather be making stuff. It's weird that that exists in games but we don't see it in other places. Or maybe it does but it's not as prevalent. I don't know.
Maybe comic-book fans? That's based on the friends I have who are very vocal about that stuff. But it's the same as anything where you're a fan: Either you see it or you don't. But what I see most in games is very low tolerance in other perspectives. "Nope. Shut up. We already have these four perspectives."
Exactly. [Laughs.] Yeah.
So, but how do you not feel included by videogames right now? Either the software itself or the greater ecosystem.
I just don't feel like what people talk about on bigger media sites, like Kotaku and, well, not Joystiq anymore, but Polygon-- like, those sites, what seems to interest the readers of those sites, which I consider to be the "core gamer" audience, just doesn't really interest me. I don't feel included because I just don't see a lot of things being talked about that interest me. What excites most people doesn't excite me. So I really value conversations like this where I find a few people -- it's not really a few people anymore, like you said, more and more people are feeling this way. But, yeah, I just feel kind of like a loner a lot of the times. I'm sure you do, too.
Like, I feel like I'm in the wrong industry half the time.
This goes back to -- I can't remember when you said this -- but what a lot of people seem to say is, "Well, if you don't like it, go make your own thing. Or if you don't like it, just leave." That seems to be the response people have. I understand where they’re coming from, because the criticism I have of this whole movement we're talking about is I feel like a lot of people complain. We've been complaining more than we've actually been doing things about it. I feel like. Maybe that's not true.
I think it's because of the Internet, where it feels like complaining is doing something.
Yeah, yeah. That's a good point. I never thought about that. That could be it.
But at the same time, it's valuable to have these talks and to have honest criticism. I'm not saying you should ignore it, which is what a lot of these people seem to be kind of saying. They don't want to think about it because it's uncomfortable or whatever. So, yeah, I don't know.
Do you feel like you've aged out of games or that you've moved on?
In some ways, yes. It's hard to answer that when I'm trying to make a career in games. But as a consumer or a person who plays games -- I don't really play a whole lot of games anymore and I don't really want to, right?
Like, I played the new Dragon Age game because people talked that up, but it was such a drag. By the end of it, you get that feeling where you just wasted time. You know what I mean? Maybe you've had that feeling, where it's like, "I just sunk a lot of hours into this thing that pretty much just gave me nothing." That's how I felt and that's how I always feel with most big releases -- or actually games in general, really.
Even indie games with cool premises, they tend to drag on for way too long, adding all of this filler, extra mechanics just for the sake of buffering the completion time. So I just kind of give up on playing because I don’t feel my time is being respected.
Yeah, so, in that way I've grown out of it.
But I think games can offer me things, I just don't think they currently are. So I don't know. It's kind of a mixed response, I guess, to your question.
That's okay. Things are not as simple as they may seem.
But when I talk to people for this, it does sound like a lot of these bigger games just sound like projects they work on in their garage, like putting ships in bottles. Just before we hopped on, a friend on Gchat sent me this story, with two sports writers talking about how Destiny is such a grind. They say, "There are people who will tell you that 10 hours aren't enough, that 'the game gets good at level 20.' These are the people who felt the first dozen-plus hours were worth their time, so I do not believe them."
Like, what is this shift going on here that people feel outside of?
I'm not sure. I haven't played Destiny, so it's hard to say. Dragon Age is the only AAA game I've played recently. But, you know, it seems to be -- what I see, at least, is the bigger budget games, they're afraid to -- they just play it too safe, I guess. They're so safe and there’s no edges on them at all, that they just don't really -- they're not memorable at all to me when you do that.
When you think of those older N64 games that I grew up playing, yeah, from a design perspective they were frustrating at times and not so much fun, but something about those flaws, like, stick with you somehow. I think that's something that games haven't really embraced yet, is that there's beauty in flaws. Like, we seem to not like flaws at all in this industry. We want everything to be as polished as it can be and as fun as possible and I don't know if that's what I want.
That sounds weird to say, like you said, because we think of games as being fun, so how dare I say things should be a little flawed, but that's part of being human, and I don't think games have really embraced that. Whereas I see other mediums have. So, I don't know. [Laughs.]
Why do you think games are so reluctant on a widespread level to acknowledge that they're made by humans?
Yeah. That's an interesting question. I think it's because most people, most designers, and most programmers, they're very engineer-esque people. At least from people I've met, they don't like talking about feelings or anything metaphysical, really. They like talking about systems and questions that have answers, like hard math problems and so on. I don't see life quite like that -- I'm not criticizing them as people because they have a place in the world and they're more intelligent than I am. But when you're trying to talk about humans and have something that relates to the human condition, it's not all black and white. Right? There's a lot of gray. When you only see things in an engineer tunnel vision-like way, you miss out on a lot of it, I think.
I don't have any numbers to back up what I'm saying, but I'm just saying of all the people I've talked to in the industry, that's the vibe I get.
[Laughs.] They don't really. The stuff I'm interested in tends to come from word of mouth, like, from Twitter or wherever. Or a few of the smaller sites like Kill Screen. Usually the bigger sites we think of like the Kotaku’s and stuff, I keep up with them, just because I like seeing the trends and what's hot and all that, but nothing really appeals to me. In a lot of cases, I feel like they cover immature things. That frustrates me.
Like, a couple months ago, Kotaku, I think it was, they wrote a piece about a PlayStation 4 trailer that came out on YouTube had a typo in the description and it said "Xbox One" instead of "PlayStation 4." Of course, that, like, blew up. To me it's like, "Who cares? Instead of covering somebody's mistake, you could be covering the stuff we've been talking about."
Which, to me, is a much more valuable discussion than that. So, yeah, they don't really, to answer your question. They don't really impact me.
To the extent that you do pay attention to it, what sort of trends do you notice?
Kind of going back to what we were talking about before, they seem to be afraid of stepping on people's toes. I think they feel like they should be covering things that the consumer wants to hear about, the games that they want to hear about, like the AAA releases. They don't seem to cover a whole lot of fringy, experimental games a whole lot, which is the stuff that I'm into. And when they do, there seems to be a backlash, right? I'm gonna take a guess -- I don't know the inner workings of these sites -- but I'm taking a guess that that's bad for business, so they try to stay away from certain topics. So, they seem to kind of play into this whole, "Let's cater to what the audience wants."
They're kinda the whole marketing machine, I guess. I don't know. In a lot of ways they don't feel very human. But I know people that work at those sites that are awesome people. I'm not critiquing the people, I'm critiquing the system.
What is the system? What are you talking about here?
Well, it seems to me that they pretty much just repost press releases. [Laughs.] I don't know. There doesn't seem to be a lot of original writing. It's just like, "Oh, let's just get hyped up about this thing." I saw the article you did yesterday, or you were tweeting about it, that was on Unwinnable.
I feel exactly the same way. What you brought up is what I feel: They're really not journalists in the traditional sense, right? They just hype up -- they're almost like puppets for the PR people in a way.
Like, the writers. Maybe not even the writers, because I'm not sure how much control they have. I've never worked at a Kotaku.
Maybe I come off like I'm trying to ban all this stuff I'm talking about. I just want more views, like you said. I just want more of an alternative view or an alternative voice, or I want more sites that are covering the kinds of games that Kill Screen is covering. I want more of that. And people seem to think that there is an alternative voice already, and that kinda discourages me.
Yeah, "You already have these four things. What are you complaining about?"
Yeah, exactly. Because I grew up with these games. I'm not saying they have no value. They had a lot of value when I was younger. I mean, I played all the RPGs, and I played Halo and all that, and I have great memories of those games. It's just I've absorbed what they have to offer me and I just want to see some other stuff.
It's really just as simple as that. I don't want anything to go away, I just want different stuff. [Laughs.]
I'd be tempted to just end there, but I'd like to ask this, too: Why does it matter if games feel less creative and they don't acknowledge the humanity behind them? Who is that hurting?
This might sound a little blown up, but I think it's hurting everyone because, to me, I think videogames have the potential to be the most powerful medium ever. It kinda goes back to what Chris Crawford said in the dragon speech: This is the only medium to have interactivity and that's huge, because you can have a conversation with millions of people about the ideas in your head.
You can't have a conversation, a back and forth, with other mediums. That could potentially change the world. If we could find a way to express political ideas through games, that could start revolutions. You could really affect the world in a positive way.
And if we just accept that this is all games can be, we'll never get there.
I think games can affect people outside of the gaming bubble or whatever. We just have a long ways to go. If we just accept this is it and if we should be happy with what we've got, we'll never get there. So, it has to start with some honest criticism of what we're doing and where we can go.